Scotland Neck in northeastern North Carolina might seem an unlikely place to find one of the world's leading collections of waterfowl. But that's where you'll find Sylvan Heights Bird Park, an 18-acre park that is home to more than 200 species, including some of the rarest birds on Earth.
The park exists thanks to Mike Lubbock, who some call the Waterfowl Man. As a teenager, Lubbock worked for the Wildfowl Trust in England, honing his talent for breeding birds and eventually traveling the world and winning dozens of awards for his efforts. Some say that without his work, some waterfowl species would be extinct.
Lubbock, along with his wife, Ali, and son, Brent, continue the work. Sylvan Heights is a top provider of waterfowl to zoos and aquariums across the country. The family opened the park's doors to the public in 2006 to reach beyond the world of avian experts.
The goal, said son Brent Lubbock, who serves as the membership and development project manager, is to teach people of all ages about the birds with fun, hands-on activities. About 44,000 people a year have visited the park since it opened to the public.
"It makes it real," Lubbock said of those opportunities to get up close and personal with a variety of birds. "That's what we hope to get across. It's not just a fun day out."
Each of the park's aviaries focus on specific regions of the world - North America, South America, Australia and Eurasia, for instance. While the focus is on waterfowl - ducks, geese and swans - you'll also find a variety of other birds, such as parrots, cranes, owls and flamingos.
Some birds are stunning with bright colors, tall plumes and interesting calls. Others are unremarkable to look at. All tell a story.
There's the brightly colored scarlet ibis and a macaw that might greet you with a hello from South America; the graceful east African crowned crane in Africa; and the Madagascar teal, one of the rarest birds in the world with somewhere between 100 to 500 left in the wild. Some of the birds are behind fences. Others will walk right up to you.
And while the world is represented on these acres in rural eastern North Carolina, the Lubbocks also highlight native species as well. A bird blind offers a way for visitors to look for bird and other wildlife along a creek. My nine-year-old spotted a heron at the edge of the water when we were there.
There's also a handicapped-accessible tree house that sits 20 feet above a wetland. Here you can spot birds, turtles and other local critters. In the lobby of a small restroom building within the park, there's even an exhibit about the need for honey bees.
In an effort to make the experience even more hands on, the park opened up the Landing Zone in March 2013. Here, visitors can spend a $1 for a feeding stick and stand among more than 200 small parakeets, who land on the stick for a snack. The Landing Zone also is home to flamingos, which will eat other food from your hand.
The Landing Zone was, by far, my kids - ages 9 and 4 - favorite part of the park. The colorful parakeets flitted between trees and posts and the feeding sticks that my daughters held out. The flamingos stuck their necks out, eager for the food we held in our extended hands.
"It's been a real success for us for all ages," Brent Lubbock said of the Landing Zone. That success, he said, "does make us realize the need for more interactivity."
There are big plans for the future, including a hands-on exhibit featuring birds of the tropics, which Brent hopes will open next year. Another would compare domestic and exotic birds of the same kind - so a domestic goose or pigeon and an exotic goose or pigeon.
They also are building their programs for children and families, which includes a slate of camps this summer.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park is about 90 minutes from Raleigh. My girls and I spent about four hours there, walking through the various aviaries a couple of times, exploring the bird blind and checking out the tree house. Visits begin in the visitors center where you can watch a short film about the history of the place.
The park is incredibly well maintained. Visitors are invited to bring a picnic. There's a picnic area with a really nice playground of the same quality that you'd see at any city or school park.
It's open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, from April to October. It's open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, from November to March. Admission is $9 for adults; $7 for seniors; and $5 for kids ages 3 to 12. Kids under 3 are free.
I look forward to going back for a day with the birds.